More Than A Game: Seattle Screening Report
Also on The Painted Area: NBA Decade 2000s - Players | Teams
On Wednesday night, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of More Than A Game - the new documentary film about the core group of inseparable friends who comprised the champion St. Vincent's-St. Mary's high school basketball team in Akron, Ohio, headlined by LeBron James - thanks to the good folks at SIFF Cinema in Seattle.
As an added treat, director Kristopher Belman (below) was on hand, and spoke and answered questions for a good 20 minutes or so following the film.
I must say that I was expecting a very good film, and More Than A Game exceeded my expectations - I would rank it up among the very best sports documentaries that I've seen, certainly well behind Hoop Dreams, but somewhere in the vicinity of When We Were Kings, the film about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. More Than A Game should stand the test of time as an essential piece of the LeBron James narrative.
Yet, the beauty of the film is that it truly is not a "LeBron James movie". It seems like we actually learn more about LeBron through the depiction of the ensemble - there are six major characters who all get their shine, including the "Fab 5" of inseparable friends/teammates plus Coach Dru Joyce II (Belman noted that he felt that "Coach Dru" was in many ways the central character of the film) - than we would have in a standard bio-pic. Too often, those things devolve into hagiography and mythmaking, but Belman stays true to his well-rounded narrative, and the authenticity is palpable.
The core of the movie is the friendship of four Akron kids (James, Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee) who stick together as teammates all the way from elementary school through high school. One completely grasps how LeBron engenders loyalty as a friend and teammate after watching the bonds develop via on-court and off-court clips through the years.
In his opening remarks, Belman touched upon how the uniqueness of the boys' friendship drew him to the story:
As Belman touched upon in the clip, the film began as a 10-minute school project. Even though media requests from the likes of 60 Minutes and David Letterman were being declined, Belman improbably gained access for behind-the-scenes footage starting in the boys' junior year, by appealing to Coach Dru on the grounds that he was an Akron native who was doing a school project that wasn't about LeBron. Originally, Belman was granted access for a day, but they never told him he couldn't come back, so he just kept on showing up, until his presence was so common that he blended into the background.
The story about how the movie ultimately got financed into a full-fledged feature, as told by Belman, was amusing. When he shopped the film around Hollywood, it turns out that what they wanted *was* the "LeBron James movie" and often wanted to buy his footage, but Belman stuck to his guns.
Finally, though, he realized he was going to need LeBron's clout to get the picture done, but he had lost contact with James for a couple years after his NBA career had taken off. So Belman appealed to the other guys portrayed in the film, who were initially reluctant to call upon their friend. Finally, Romeo Travis (a later arrival to the group, who turned the "Fab 4" into a "Fab 5") called Belman at 11 p.m. one night and said "Meet me at the 76 station on Route 18." Turns out Travis took Belman over to LeBron's house ("We coldcalled LeBron James" is how Belman put it) to make the pitch. Belman explained his vision and screened his 12-minute trailer... and then the guys proceeded to watch the trailer about ten times in a row, and the rest should be screening in a theater near you sometime soon.
The irony is that LeBron likely wouldn't have agreed to the film if it had centered on him, ahead of portraying the group as a whole, yet it's a much richer depiction of LeBron precisely because we see his role in the group.
-- The game footage over the years, dating back to the guys' early days playing AAU ball together, is particularly priceless, especially the LeBron stuff - it's cool to watch him go to work as a sixth-grader, or dominate high-school ball as a gangly ninth-grader. Amazingly, some of the early AAU footage is compelling not only in and of itself, but also makes a re-appearance as part of the narrative later on.
-- Belman passed along that he shot 750-800 hours of footage in total, and used City of God, the famed documentary about Rio's favelas, as an influence for how to weave in and establish the stories of six main characters in a concise, elegant manner.
-- In critique, I'd note that the film sometimes tugs on the heartstrings a little too much, particularly when the score reaches Olympic "Up Close and Personal" levels. That said, the hip-hop soundtrack really fits perfectly, and we'd note that the playing of "In Da Club" over young LeBron's spot-on lip-synching was particularly inspired.
-- It's interesting that, even with such a rich narrative, so many compelling stories had to get left on the cutting-room floor or truncated, such as the complicated journey of the boys' original coach, Keith Dambrot, or a full delving into the repercussions of African-American kids opting to take their talents to a mostly white private school instead of a mostly black public school in Akron.
-- On a personal note, the movie took me back to 2003, when I went on a moderately insane little "Midwest Basketball Adventure" that included a drive through a snowstorm from Indy to Dayton, Ohio to see LeBron play near the end of his senior year - the only time in my life that I've ever bought scalped tickets for a high-school game (as well as the only time I've ever been to Dayton!). Here was my scouting report from that time, in an e-mail to a friend in the pre-Painted Area era:
- LeBron was as spectacular as billed. It was funny being there - you can see how absurd his life is. The game was largely an exhibition, there's nothing for him really to gain at this level at this point, and 13,000 people are there expressly to see him play spectacularly, and so he obliges. His defense was pretty sloppy throughout, occasionally gambling for steals, which ultimately paid off for the people b/c he delivered a breakaway tomahawk and a breakaway windmill (among other dunks) which were somewhat startling. His athleticism is Kobe-like, but where KB is sort of elegant in the air, LBJ gets off the floor with just a little extra explosion and ferocity, almost Dominique-like.
The main thing that struck me about him was just his awareness of everything going on. Certainly, I mean that in terms of his play -- his court vision is astounding when he wants it to be. But also just in terms to reacting to the atmosphere, both when he was a bit outrageous and ridiculous -- having fun with opposition fans who were playfully taunting him by sticking out his tongue and hanging extra long on the rim in front of them after a dunk -- and when he was gracious and a leader -- going over to the mike after he was announced as MVP to give up the award to a teammate who had knocked down 6 threes, and running over from his seat on the bench to pick up a scrub who dove for a ball in the final minute.
As a player, he is probably most like Kobe, with a dash of Magic. He has a Kobe-like array of skills and athleticism, but obviously he doesn't yet have the polish. He has a Magic-like ability to see the court and get the best out of his teammates, but he doesn't have the Magic-like focus to play like this every possession, all game long. I think that whether he develops more of a Magic-like focus will determine whether he goes down as one of the top 20 or so players of all-time or one of the top two.
I enjoyed that more than I thought I would - even more than the spectacular plays, I just really enjoyed watching how he interacted with teammates, opponents, the crowd. I predict that, with all the stories coming out, adults will resent him I think kids are going to love him. And when it comes down to it, it's all about good things for the kids, isn't it?
Also on The Painted Area: NBA Decade 2000s - Players | Teams